Global Spike in Measles a 'Serious Concern'

Megan Brooks

November 30, 2018

Measles cases surged in 2017, as multiple countries experienced severe and prolonged outbreaks of the disease due to gaps in vaccination coverage, according to new data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Since 2000, more than 21 million lives have been saved through measles immunizations, but reported cases increased by more than 30% worldwide from 2016, the report notes.

"The resurgence of measles is of serious concern, with extended outbreaks occurring across regions, and particularly in countries that had achieved, or were close to achieving, measles elimination," Soumya Swaminathan, MD, WHO deputy director general for programmes, said in a statement.

Elimination Milestones Not Achieved

"Without urgent efforts to increase vaccination coverage and identify populations with unacceptable levels of under-, or unimmunized children, we risk losing decades of progress in protecting children and communities against this devastating, but entirely preventable, disease," she added.

Measles is highly contagious but preventable with two doses of measles vaccine. However, "measles elimination milestones have not been met," the report notes.

For several years, global coverage with the first dose of measles vaccine has stalled at 85% — far short of the 95% needed to prevent outbreaks. The second dose coverage stands at just 67%, the report notes.

Due to gaps in vaccination coverage, measles outbreaks occurred in all regions of the world, killing an estimated 110,000 people in 2017. The Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean Region, and Europe experienced the greatest upsurges in cases last year.

"The increase in measles cases is deeply concerning, but not surprising," Seth Berkley, MD, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said in the statement.

"Complacency about the disease and the spread of falsehoods about the vaccine in Europe, a collapsing health system in Venezuela, and pockets of fragility and low immunization coverage in Africa are combining to bring about a global resurgence of measles after years of progress. Existing strategies need to change: more effort needs to go into increasing routine immunization coverage and strengthening health systems. Otherwise we will continue chasing one outbreak after another," said Berkley.

The WHO and the CDC say sustained investment in immunization systems, coupled with efforts to strengthen routine vaccination services, are needed to reverse these trends. These efforts must focus especially on reaching the poorest, most marginalized communities, including people affected by conflict and displacement.

"Sustained investments are needed to strengthen immunization service delivery and to use every opportunity for delivering vaccines to those who need them," Robert Linkins, PhD, branch chief of accelerated disease control and vaccine preventable disease surveillance at CDC, said in the statement.

The report, Progress Toward Regional Measles Elimination — Worldwide, 2000–2017, is a joint publication of WHO and CDC.

It is published within the WHO Weekly Epidemiological Record and in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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